Top firms to offer better rights for new fathers

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

Some of the country's biggest employers are expected to offer three months' parental leave under a European deal agreed last night.

Many of the UK companies with plants on the continent are likely to grant their British workers the time-off which can be taken by both parents at any time during a child's early development. It will come on top of maternity leave, may be taken in instalments and will apply equally to full and part-timers.

There will also be a right to leave to care for sick relatives, although the maximum time allowed will be decided country-by-country.

The agreement was signed yesterday by continental employers and union leaders - the so-called "social partners" - and under the Maastricht treaty will eventually become law.

Because of Britain's "opt out" from the accord, UK companies do not have to apply the deal but on recent evidence many are expected to do so.

Despite the Government's refusal to sign the treaty's social chapter, ministers have found that an increasing number of British companies are falling into line with its provisions.

Eight big companies have already included their British workers on European works councils which act as a channel for union representation and company information. Another nine are in the pipeline. Among the top companies already adopting the policy are United Biscuits, Pilkington, Courtaulds and NatWest.

Union representatives on the councils will insist British staff are included in the leave entitlements and senior managers will be under pressure to accede.

Senior officials of the TUC were at yesterday's meeting together with representatives of UNICE and CEEP, respectively private and public sector employers' organisations. Delegates from the CBI were present as observers. British employers' leaders back the Government's opt out.

No agreement could be struck yesterday on who should pay for the new entitlements,employers or each state's social security system.

The decision on parental leave - the first among the social partners under the treaty - will now be passed to the Council of Ministers which is scheduled to agree the details of the policy before the end of the year. Britain will not be represented because of the opt out.

A CBI spokeswoman said the organisation was more of a "non-voting participant" at yesterday's talks but it still opposed the Maastricht provisions.

A spokesman for the TUC said it would be the first time British workers would be given rights to family leave other than for maternity.

He estimated that at least three million employees worked for British firms which will introduce parental leave in their continental operations. "British unions will be pressing for workers in this country to have the same rights."